Saturday, November 21, 2009


California is going to have a gubernatorial election in 2010. Arnold Schwarzenegger, having served two terms, is ineligible for reelection. And yet, somehow, there's a scene in 2012, set in the titular year, where the governor of California calls a press conference, and sure enough, he's a giant dude with a thick Austrian accent. Yes, it's a small goof in an epically long, epically stupid movie riddled with jaw-dropping distortions of physics, astronomy and common sense, but it's emblematic of the slapdash, kitchen sink approach of German schlockmeister Roland Emmerich, or, as I like to think of him, Uwe Boll with a 200 million dollar budget.

Everything, literally everything, about this movie is ridiculous: the premise that the Mayans predicted that the world would end in 2012, the idea that the sun starts emitting "mutated" neutrinos that heat up the earth's core (who knew neutrinos had DNA?), the fact that a movie in which 99.9999% of the world's population dies horribly in volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis spends most of its running time detailing the petty relationship issues of science fiction author John Cusack and his estranged wife and children. And, of course, the continual and downright laughable defiance of basic plausibility. The first two hours of this seemingly endless movie feature three (THREE!) separate instances of an airplane taking off just in time to avoid, in turn, a massive earthquake, a supervolcanic eruption, and a massive cloud of ash. It's all part of Roland Emmerich's mission to film people outrunning the four elemental forces in his movies. First, Air Force One narrowly escapes the incineration of Washington D.C. in Independence Day (fire, natch), then Jake Gyllenhaal outruns a burst of supercold air in The Day After Tomorrow (wind), and now, in 2012, John Cusack's plane takes off just as California splits in half and sinks into the ocean (earth!). For the life of me, I can't figure out why the hell none of these close-call take-offs couldn't have dodged one of the film's many massive tidal waves. I guess Emmerich is adhering to a consistent One Element Per Film rule in order to make it more of a challenge for himself.

Of course, such trifling concerns are beside the point when dealing with a gigantic piece of nihilistic spectacle like this. The only real question worth asking is: is it a reasonably good time? On that score, 2012 delivers, like most Roland Emmerich movies. It's entertaining mostly because of the ridiculousness and the absurdity and the brain-bending continuity errors. Like a buttoned-down Michael Bay, Emmerich makes movies where the majority of the fun is in seeing how far the filmmakers will go to insult your intelligence as a viewer, and how many hundreds of millions of dollars of special effects wizardry they'll spend to do it. In this case, there's plenty of fun to be had, and even though most of the big disaster set-pieces are cribbed from other Emmerich (and James Cameron) movies, there's still a mad grandeur to unleashing every megadeath-causing havoc on the planet's landmarks all at once. As usual, the fact that these spectacles of mayhem are meant to represent the near extinction of the human race, including the horrifying deaths of almost every person (not to mention animal) on earth is given little consideration. Josef Stalin supposedly said, "one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic." Roland Emmerich might have added "and six billion deaths is a 65 million dollar opening weekend."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Serious Man

About halfway through the Coen brother's new movie, there's a shot of hapless physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) standing in front of his class. He is a tiny figure at the bottom of the frame, nearly consumed by a comically oversized chalkboard covered the obscure equations that constitute the mathematical proof for Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. You know the Coens are in the mood to grapple with the absurdity and loneliness of existence when they reference Heisenberg. In A Serious Man, this image encapsulates Gopnik's internal crisis, whose life is rapidly unraveling and who can't figure out why. In the frame, he's practically being crushed by a vast expanse of complex, inscrutable equations, all of which add up to one big question mark. Most of the film consists of Gopnik suffering various travails and his attempting to make sense of what is happening to him. In his struggle, Gopnik has two coping tools at his disposal: his understanding of the explanatory power of science, and his Jewish faith. These are two twin intellectual pillars of Gopnik's life, but once his trials begin, he discovers how shaky they really are. The mystical nature of quantum mechanics undermine any ability to trust conventional cause-and-effect reasoning. Even more troubling to Gopnik, Judaism doesn't offer much in the way of comfort. The film is organized around Gopnik's discussions with three separate rabbis at his synagogue. The rabbis attempt to offer solace, but what they cannot offer is any sort of explanation for Gopnik's plight. Unique among Western religions, Judaism embraces the essential mystery of the universe, which doesn't give Gopnik much comfort when it seems that the universe is conspiring against him.

Superficially, this is the Coen brother's most personal film: it's setting (the Twin cities) and period (the late 1960s) are the setting and period of their childhood, and their protagonist is modeled on their college professor father. But there is little in the way of personal frankness on display here: this is the most intentionally obscure, cerebral Coen movie since Barton Fink. Given the theme of struggling with the unknowable emptiness of existence, it's appropriate, but at the same time it's hard not to feel a sense of deja vu. A Serious Man trodes much of the same ground of not only Barton Fink but also of their vastly underrated Man Who Wasn't There. The only real innovation, and it's admittedly a dozy, is the immersion in Jewish lore and theology. For those interested in Judaism, A Serious Man offers an arresting glimpse into a religion that concentrates much more on the social and traditional than on questions of "belief," and how this stance can leave people in crisis with more questions than answers.

Larry Gopnik joins a small group of Coen protagonists which includes Marge Gunderson, and Ed Crane, who are not appallingly venal and/or stupid. He is heaped with a slew of baffling personal problems, from his wife's bolt-from-the-blue divorce demand to his socially retarded brother's legal troubles to a Schrodingerian Korean student who may (or may not!) be trying to bribe him for a passing grade. His troubles are, of course, played for laughs, but they also offer a platform to explore the spiritual collapse of a person who reaches for a rope to save himself from drowning only to discover that it's made of sand. There's no catharsis and no redemption, just a steady descent to the bottom of the ocean. A Serious Man offers the usual bracing jolt of a Coen brothers movie, but once again, the brothers have opted not to provide much in the way of solace: life is a bewildering minefield of absurdity and humiliation, and nobody, not G-d, not Einstein, and least of all some smart-aleck filmmaker, can make it okay.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

On second thought....

When I saw Inglourious Basterds in August, my initial reaction was mild disappointment. After months of hype, I'd built up a fantasy movie in my head featuring wall-to-wall Nazi-killing courtesy of Brad Pitt and a cadre of bad-ass Jews. and when Basterds turned out to be an altogether more oblique, experimental film, I held it against the movie that my baser urges weren't satisfied. But then, I found that i could not stop thinking about the movie, about Tarantino's bold use of off screen action, long stretches of dialogue, and mostly about the fact that Basterds marked the first Tarantino film to take the director's preoccupation with cinematic history and use it to provide genuine insight. Then, I listened to an interview with noted cinephile and comedic genius Patton Oswalt, who condemned above all the film viewer who rejects a movie just because it doesn't give them exactly what they were expecting going into it. Within a few weeks of thinking and writing and reading about the movie, and I was convinced that Inglourious Basterds marked Tarantino's best movie since Pulp Fiction. Tonight, I watched it again at a dollar theater in a mall (whose sign actually said, in Brutalist block capitals: DOLLAR THEATER) and seeing it again, I have to revise my thoughts further: Inglourious Basterds is definitely Tarantino's best film, period.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The House of the Devil

Writer-director Ti Law's retro-horror film The House of the Devil plays like the third part of Grindhouse. Actually, it plays like an actual "grindhouse" 80s horror film, as opposed to the mimetic subversions of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. There's no gratuitous nudity and a relative dearth of blood, but The House of the Devil positively drips with period detail and boasts a visual pallet instantly recognizable to anyone who spent sleepless nights during the Reagan administration watching co-eds get slaughtered.

The period detail goes beyond rotary phones and high-waisted jeans; House boasts a plot featuring one of the great boogeymen of the 1980s: the Satanic cult. A young college student looking for rent money takes a one-night, high-profit "babysitting" gig at a scary old house in the country that just so happens to be the base of operations for a family of be-robed Satan worshipers. The vast majority of the film consists of the young woman, played by Jocelin Donahue, walking from room to room in the big, creepy house, accompanied by a needling, pensive score. These long stretches of anticipation work wonderfully at creating suspense as the audience waits...and waits...and waits for something to happen; the waiting never slides into tedium because the sense of imminent, horrifying danger never slackens. Law achieves this effect with all the tools in horror directing kit, voyeuristic shots, as well as extreme low and high angles that highlights Donahue's vulnerability. More interestingly, Law repeatedly holds a shot of an empty room or space after a character has walked out of the frame. That use of negative space puts the viewer further on edge as they wait for something to fill it. Then, the tension explodes in a bloody, hysterical climax that ends with a nice, Twilight Zone-worthy sting.

While The House of the Devil works as a piece of sustained tension and bloody supernatural horror, that doesn't address whether the 80s trappings are strictly necessary. Perhaps not strictly, but there is something about the grimy aesthetic of 80s horror films that gives them a nasty edge that slick, big-budget contemporary horror films simply can't match. Watching underwear models and the third lead from One Tree Hill get chased by a killer on glossy film stock can be entertaining, but it rarely scares. Ti Law and company keep the visuals and constraining reality of 80s horror (a scary old house is a lot scarier when you don't have a cellphone), jettison the ugly misogyny and cheap shocks while pushing a sustained sense of doom to riveting lengths.

The Box

Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button" is a short, punchy bit of business that consists almost entirely of an intriguing set up and a sad-trombone twist ending. Richard Kelly, the cracked visionary behind Donnie Darko and Southland Tales takes the intriguing set up (a couple can press a mysterious button that will kill someone they don't know and in return they get a briefcase full of cash) and takes it into a typically Kellyesque exploration of free will, altruism, grace, the afterlife and extraterrestrial life. Along the way, the viewers are treated to a bunch of bloody-nosed, creepily staring strangers, foreboding musical cues, and people in tight close-ups reciting semi-obscure spiritual dialogue.

Kelly's philosophical ruminations never amount to much, and they're made taxing by Kelly's failure to settle on any consistent tone. The Box is never scary enough to qualify as a horror movie, and the stakes for the characters aren't clear enough for it to work as a thriller. Really, the only thing it feels like is a Richard Kelly film; he's creating a singular cinematic landscape of oblique conspiracies, unexplained cosmic forces, and terminally befuddled protagonists, all ambling at a sluggish pace towards a surprisingly mellow annihilation. Kelly deserves credit for carving out such a distinct niche, especially one that stubbornly refused to adhere to conventional narrative and genre beats, but at some point, he's going to have to come up with something that offers a cumulative impact more powerful that the gentle sigh that ends The Box